Autism and critical thinking – as simple as reading a map

Liz Becker


At the age of 4 ½ years old my son was still not doing age appropriate behaviors. When we took him back to the Kluge Center for Children for his last follow up evaluation they ran a battery of cognitive tests. The results were still grim and not only showed he had a bimodal IQ (certain skills were higher than average, and certain skills were very low) but showed he was incapable of independent thought. I immediately took issue with the way the tests were done. How could they possibly say such a thing? Didn't they see the wonderful little boy I saw? This was in 1990 and autism was rare and thought to result in a robot-like child without the ability to learn. It wasn't just the doctors and the therapists, it was also the way special education teachers thought of the disorder. Matt was already in pre-school - a special education pre-school - where he spent most of his day hiding under tables or pacing in the back of the classroom. No one saw any point in teaching him because, well, he couldn't learn anyway. How does one change that pattern of thought?

The way I saw it, Matt’s sensory processing difficulties were not taken into consideration with the types of tests they did. So while the curious behaviors of autism took center stage the child underneath was all but forgotten. I finally had my fill of testing when Matt failed a test designed to evaluate his level of critical thinking. To this day I take issue with how it was evaluated. Consider this method for yourself -

Matt was shown a box with a lock on it and given a key. The idea was to see if he possessed critical thinking skills and independent thought. Evidently, the average child can do this even if they have never encountered a lock before. I’m skeptical of this assumption. The lock and key test was sprung on him suddenly. The occupational therapist gave him a key and set the locked box in front of him. She then began timing him with a stop watch. He had never even seen a lock or a key, and he had no curiosity about what was in the box. After several minutes she secretively marked her grade sheet.

“Did he fail?” I asked.

“Well, he didn’t even attempt to open the box and never showed any curiosity.” She stated back.

“But Matt can do that trick” I countered, “give me the key.” She politely handed me the key, placating the hysterical parent before her. “Matt, watch this!” I said directly to Matt as I sat on the floor beside him. Matt watched as I put the key in the hole, turned, open the lock, opened the latch and open the box. I picked up his toy car he had brought with him and placed it in the box. I shut the lid, flipped down the latch and put the lock back on.

“Listen” I said as I clamped the lock down until it produced an audible “click”. Matt watched the whole sequence. His car was now in that box and the box was locked. I handed him the key. Matt put the key in the hole, turned it, open and removed the lock, flipped the latch and opened the box to reveal his beloved possession still intact. A wonderful smile lit up his face. He was genuinely relieved and now fascinated by the lock and key.

“See?” I said to the therapist. She looked at me as if I had just spit on her. “Well, he was not able to do it without you showing him” she replied.

She never changed her grade sheet and Matt failed the test. In his medical record it was recorded that my son was unable to think critically and had no measurable independent thought capabilities.

That last visit really was the last visit as far as follow-up evaluations went. Their methods were questionable and the results highly inaccurate - basically it had really gotten under my skin and I refused to accept their conclusions. The problem was how do I prove them wrong? So while I was unwilling to accept that Matt lacked thinking skills I had no way to show them that he did. His autism behaviors - the outward signs of autism - always took center stage. Testing had shown there was no one present underneath - my beautiful son was considered to be mentally incapable of learning.....just a robot. He was in a special education pre-school class, but he spent most of his time under a table or pacing at the back of the room . . . and the only person it bothered was me.

As the years crept by Matt continued to show me skill after skill, but nothing I could declare as an ability to think critically (where a problem is analyzed, worked through, a solution tested and evaluated, leading to logical thought and self-guided learning). I watched him as he played and although I was sure he was thinking through what he was seeing and evaluating what he was hearing, I knew that just synthesizing sensory information was not considered true critical thinking. That all changed with the introduction of the most unlikely educational tool - the video game.

Matt grew up with the release of video games to mainstream America. He learned to play because he was fascinated by the movements on the screen - which he could control. He mastered such favorites as Sonic the Hedgehog and others and would spend hours playing. I remember when the video game for Jurassic Park came out – it was a “must” purchase for Matt as the movie had been one of his favorites. The game promised lots of dinosaurs and jungles and various weapons of destruction – what’s not to love? I learned to play the video game too as a way to interact with him and I even made it to the end of the game eventually, but I didn't play very often. Matt, on the other hand, was a Jurassic Park ninja at the age of 7. He played daily and for hours at a stretch. He had to win – just had too! He competed with his step siblings, Jacob and Sarah, and with Tom and me and he won 99% of the time, but not against his older brother, Christopher. When those two played it could be best described as a clash of the titans. Speed clicking the controller, thumbs flying, bodies in motion, eyes glued to the screen – a true battle between video ninjas. It was because his older brother was so good at it that Matt made it his mission to learn all the secret codes that would garner him more hidden points and he learned to decipher the simple schematics of the island map which kept him headed in the right direction toward winning the game.

The map had a “you are here” and showed the various locations of battles and treasures and how to get to them. A map was a way to get from point A to point B and this revelation led to an interest in all maps; geographical, road, world maps, etc. This skill bled over into his drawings and teachers began to sit up and take notice. Although he was non-verbal he could name the capitals, draw a state's shape, write the sequence of route numbers from one place to another - knowledge was showing up in his art. Even deciphering the symbols in the key of a map provided clues on where the next turn would be on any given road, where the highest elevation was in the state, or when we traveled across a border to another state. Reading a map was like seeing the future, as he could see ahead to what would come next – removing some of the mystery and fear of the unknown. I didn’t realize the importance of maps until he made one of his very own, but I didn’t see the importance of it right away because my attention was on something else . . . my garden.

I was outside designing and planting new flower beds and deep into creating a new walking path. Matt was outside with me. Matt could care less about gardening but he was fond of making ramps in the newly tilled soil for the pleasure of launching one of his small toy trucks into the air. The ramp was continually modified at ever steeper angles in order to send his toy in ever higher trajectories . . . it’s a Matt thing. He was fascinated by trajectories at that age and many a toy was launched off the deck, the kitchen countertop, or any high surface so that he could watch the object out the corners of his eyes as the toy flew in various shaped arcs (depending on their weight) until it crash-landed. His joy in this activity was obvious as he would jump and twirl with glee after every successful launch. It was also very routine for him to carry paper and pencil with him at all times in case the need to draw these trajectories and crashes overcame him. And so it was that particular day that Matt had a small toy truck he was launching off the dirt ramps and paper and pencil by his side as I worked in the garden . . . just another “normal” day.

A few days later as we were having lunch Matt brought me a picture. The paper had a newly drawn picture that I couldn’t quite decipher: a confusing set of lines, an X and what appeared to be a truck. The paper had a bit of dirt on it. Not sure what I was seeing I simply told him how nice it was and gave it back. He handed it back to me, but this time he pointing at the X and exclaimed, “My truck”.

Thinking he wanted me to acknowledge his scribble of a truck I simply said, “It’s a nice truck”. Evidently my reply was not what he wanted and he pointed again, “Truck”.

O.K., what is it about this truck? I stared at it, trying to make sense of his picture. There were straight lines and a few crossed lines and the “X” and a simple sketch of a truck. I just wasn’t seeing what he had intended me to see and sadly handed it back to him. Frustrated with me, he took back his artwork, turned and left. We spent the next several hours in the house and the normal sounds of him playing his Jurassic Park video game filled the air. A few hours later it suddenly occurred to me that the house was too quiet – the sounds of dinosaurs screaming had ceased. I went to look in on Matt. There he sat in his room, his video game on pause, drawing the animation of the Jurassic Park island displayed on the screen.

The following day he brought me another picture and again pointed to the X. “My truck” he exclaimed again. Again I looked it over and again I did not see what he needed me to see. But Matt never gave up. Day after day he brought me a picture of lines, an X and a truck. Try as I might I couldn’t figure out what he was trying to tell me. Several days later I took him back outside to play while I again headed for the garden. When Matt realized we were headed outside he ran back to his room to get his picture. His excitement caught my attention and I watched as he stopped at the door, looked at his paper, and then took very deliberate steps across the deck and into the yard. I wish I would have continued to watch as he took each step according to plan, but I missed it. I had assumed he was just playing some odd Matt-type game and instead of watching him I went to the garden. Before I started digging I looked over at Matt. He had also come to the garden. Paper in hand, he dropped to his knees and began to dig. Matt didn’t like to dig, so this was something new. Now he had my attention. I watched as he turned over the dirt by the handfuls until finally his hands brought up a toy truck. The light bulb finally glowed above my head as I exclaimed aloud, “Oh, I get it!”

Matt’s picture was a map. I asked Matt if I could see his picture again and I finally saw what he wanted me to see. He had buried his truck in the garden and had drawn a map to its location. The confusing set of lines had actually been a fairly accurate diagram of the deck and lawn. The truck was buried treasure, buried underground and the X – well, the X marked the spot.

A big smile shone brightly on his face as he happily showed me his map. As I looked deeper at each line I noticed he had added a “You are here” sign on the line that represented the back door. I understood. Matt must have added it after I had trouble deciphering the last map. Determined to make me understand he had gone back to his game, re-studied the island map and tried to match the details of that map to his own. Now, having successfully communicated to me what he wanted me to know, he stood triumphant, truck in one hand and dirt-smudged map in the other and marched back toward the house with his head held high.

I stood there amazed at what just transpired. My son had just demonstrated critical thinking. He had used the island map on his video game as a template for making his own map. He then tested the map, and seeing that it confused me, had adjusted the map to more accurately depict the starting point. Matt had thought through a problem, analyzed it and tested it – and repeated the stages as he sought new information on how to communicate his map to me. These are same steps that demonstrate the use of critical thinking skills. And while this may seem like common knowledge now, back in the early 1990s when autism was rare, this skill was something new. His use of critical thinking - using something as simple as a map - showed me there was much more to my son then the unique behaviors associated with his autism. The assumption that he would never be able to learn was finally debunked. The best part was watching his determination to communicate with me. He had given me clues, tried to tell me the best way he knew how (with pictures) and remained steadfast in his mission to communicate his new found skill with me. It was obvious – finally – that his mind was so very capable of deep, independent, thought.

So here was the fork in the road and now it was up to me to decide which way we would go. One direction led toward a special education classroom and basic skills learning and the other toward challenging his mind and his abilities to think. I gathered up all my courage and decided to take the new, harder path, the one without road signs, the one that would push him to learn and think. I decided to attempt something not done before by anyone here in southwest Virginia – mainstream an autistic child into a regular education classroom. There would no longer be a straight line from point A to point B. This different road was certain to be very confusing and possibly impossible to traverse, but I was willing to attempt it. I wasn’t scared. I had an ace in the hole, you see. I had a map. I knew my son could give me the clues to what he was capable of along the way – and just like a map to his future – I knew if I got stumped on which way to turn or the number of steps to take to get to the next destination it would be OK, because Matt didn’t just draw the map, he taught me how to read it.

We changed our path that year – it was 1993. We started to transition him from a contained special-education class to a regular class in 1994 – 1995 and he was fully mainstreamed into the third grade in 1996. Although Matt is moderate / severely autistic and mostly non-verbal, he continued on in a regular classroom (with the help of his aide) throughout the remainder of his school years, graduating in 2005 . . . . with honors . . . as a National Honor Society member . . . .and number 4 in his class.

A road we took because he made a great map and taught me how to read it.


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